Doom and gloom turn to cautious optimism as a new season for facelifted AS Roma begins Sunday

New Roma manager Paulo Fonseca led Ukraine power Donetsk Shakhtar to the last three league titles. Gazzetta del Sud photo


This off season I changed my greeting at my local coffee bar. Every time I walked into Romagnani Caffe across the street from my Rome apartment I greeted the Romanisti coffee jockeys with “FORZA ROMA!” the long-time mantra of every AS Roma fan, meaning “GO ROMA!” They, in turn, greeted me with the simultaneous, seemingly rehearsed, traditional response in chorus: “SEMPRE! (ALWAYS!)”

Since last season ended in May, however, the exchange has been altered. I’d walk in with my morning Corriere dello Sport, chronicling another horrid off-season drama, and before they even handed me my usual cornetto and cappuccino, I’d say, “Siamo fottuti.”

(“We’re fucked.”)

They didn’t even acknowledge my growing command of Romanaccio, the dialect within the Roman dialect devoted entirely to profanity. They were merely slumped in resigned agreement. They handed me my breakfast and listened to me curse at my outdoor table as I read details of what appeared to be the fall of the Roma Empire.

“Roma Empire” is a headline I’ve dreamed about since attaching my heart to this soccer team in 2002. Since retiring here in January 2014 and transforming from sports writer to sports fan, it has been a painful tease. Following AS Roma as a born-again fan is like getting tickled with a feather — one with a dagger on the other end. You feel a tingling sensation then get knifed in the heart.

Roma Empire? How about the Bhutan Empire? In our 92 seasons we’ve won three Serie A Italian league titles, the last in 2001. Our last trophy was the 2008 Italian Cup, a national tournament the league’s upper echelon doesn’t sober up for until the semifinals.

The leadership of Roma icon Francesco Totti has been missing since he retired to the front office after the 2017 season. Virgilio Sport photo


Then came last season, a nine-month colonoscopy with only occasional relief. Club icon Francesco Totti had retired after 2017 and gritty leaders Radja Nainggolan and Kevin Strootman were jettisoned in favor of mostly a bunch of stiffs.

We bombed spectacularly out of the Champions League and Italian Cup, mercifully fired the embattled Eusebio Di Francesco in March and as interim manager, old Rome native Claudio Rainieri couldn’t repeat his magic in leading little Leicester City to the 2016 Premiership title. Roma finished sixth and out of this season’s Champions League, which earned the club 51 million euros last season, a booty Roma desperately needs again while it waits for its pipe dream of a new 1 billion euro stadium. Roma barely qualified for the Europa League, European soccer’s equivalent of the NIT.

Losing 7-1 to Fiorentina in the Italian Cup was the beginning of the end for Eusebio Di Francesco. Il Messaggero photo


Then it got worse.

The club gently but unceremoniously pushed out beloved captain Daniele De Rossi, who replaced fellow Rome-native Totti as the face of the franchise but flew off to Boca Juniors in Buenos Aires. Totti tired of his opinions being ignored as a club director and quit, lambasting the club as he followed out the door his boss, sporting director Monchi, who had already bolted in disgust after his bosses fired Di Francesco.

At one point this off season, Roma had no manager and no sporting director. The best defender, Kostas Manolas, was headed to Napoli; the best striker, Edin Dzeko, was headed to Inter Milan; their best young player, 20-year-old Italian international Nicolo’ Zaniolo, was being dangled in front of rich, salivating suitors; fallen striker star Gonzalo Higuain dissed Roma to stay with Juventus; and the goalkeeper was about my age.

For three months, I thought the headline of this preview would be, “I MAY SOON KNOW WHAT IT’S LIKE TO BE AN OREGON STATE FOOTBALL FAN.”

I was going to spend an entire season at my Abbey Theatre Irish Pub and my local Birrotecca Stappo with fellow Romanisti, attracted more to the great pub grub than the weekly drubbings on the big screen.

Then things changed.

New sporting director Gianluca Petrachi led Torino to Serie A promotion in 2011 and two Europa League bids. Tottoasroma photo


With the season opener Sunday night, a series of dealings has put some optimism back in my bark. James Pallotta, the Boston-based owner who occasionally has been the most hated man in Rome since Nero, hired a sharp sporting director in Gianluca Petrachi, who had Torino punching above its weight for the last 10 years.

For manager they hired Paulo Fonseca, whose movie-star good looks won over female fans and his three recent titles with Donetsk Shakhtar, the Juventus of the Ukraine Premier League, won over the male fans. While Manolas did leave for Napoli, Dzeko and Zanioli re-signed, Roma pinched a promising 24-year-old goalkeeper from Real Betis named Pau Lopez, acquired Italian international defender Davide Zappacosta on loan from Chelsea and signed midfielder Leonardo Spinazzola who last season helped lead Atalanta to its first Champions League berth.

They looked better on paper. But if you read on this site how much trash is in Rome you’ll know how much paper is worth in this town. I needed to see them in action.

I saw them win a friendly on the road at Lille, which finished second in the French League last season, then beat a full-strength Real Madrid at home on penalty kicks in the Mabel Green Cup.

Fonseca replaced Italians’ traditionally snoozy, heavy-on-tactics and defense with an aggressive, attacking style that produced a flurry of shots against both clubs. Dzeko had two assists at Lille and scored against Real off a beautiful pass from Cengiz Under, a promising 22-year-old Turk who combined with Zaniolo for 14 goals and 13 assists the last two seasons. Lopez made some highlight-reel saves behind a defense that pressed higher and set up more counter attacks.

“This season the objective is to return to the Champions League (by finishing in the top four),” Fonseca said, “but in two or three seasons I’m convinced we can win a title.”

Since I punted my objectivity on Roma nearly 20 years ago, I called a trusty Rome-based soccer journalist. Paddy Agnew (@paddyagnew) has been penning great copy about Roma and the Italian League since 1986 and now writes for World Soccer, my favorite soccer magazine in the world. Jaded and tough from also covering the cesspool that is Italian politics and the Vatican, Agnew backed my cautious optimism — with a caveat.

Who’s the face of Roma? Alessandro Florenzi, the Rome native who inherited De Rossi’s captaincy, was so elated about Dzeko re-signing he offered him his captain’s armband. Dzeko, his mouth not nearly as loud as his deadly legs, turned it down.

“It’s a different year for Roma because it’s the first year for God knows how many years — 25 years — when they haven’t had either Totti or De Rossi around,” Agnew said. “It’s different looking Roma. My question would be, who’s actually the team leader?

“They really don’t have a bad squad. The question is who is the boss man on the pitch? That’s what Fonseca must work out. If he works that out you could have a good year.”

That’s my worry. When De Rossi was injured — and, at 36, he has developed the shelf life of handmade linguini — Roma had no direction. It had no bite. Zaniolo had about as much fire as anybody and he still looks like a kid who eats Orange Slices after games.

Edin Dzeko’s 87 goals in 179 games are already fifth on Roma’s all-time list. Goal.com photo


The best news, and what convinced me not to torch my AS Roma potholders and beach towel, is Dzeko’s re-signing. Considered the best Bosnian player in history, he has scored 87 goals in 179 games, already fifth in Roma history in only four seasons. If he left for Inter, saremmo fottuti (We’d be fucked.)

The next most is Florenzi with 28 in 262 games.

“The thing about Dzeko is he’s a one-man team up front,” Agnew said. “He can get ahold of it and even though he’s got three defenders hanging onto his shorts, he can hold on to it for a while. For a big man, he has really good feet and is good passing the ball. On top of that he gets into the box and scores goals.”

Problems remain, of course. They’re going to miss Manolas, whose heroic winning goal against Barcelona two seasons ago overshadowed his stripping of Lionel Messi who was driving for a winning goal of his own. Lots of pressure is on Manolas’ replacement, Gianluca Mancini, a 23-year-old who came over from Atalanta. They could use another striker to take some pressure off Dzeko.

With the market window closing Sept. 2, Roma is looking at Nikola Kalinic, 31, a Croat international who sat on Atletico Madrid’s bench most of last season, and defender Daniele Rugani, a 25-year-old who didn’t even make Juventus’ road trip to Parma Saturday and is interested in Roma.

I’m not the only one whose optimism is growing. The club sold fewer than 19,000 season tickets, well under last year’s total of 22,000. However, Friday the club sold 12,000 tickets alone for Sunday’s opener against Genoa.

It’s a nice bump but only 30,000 for a season opener? In Rome? I shouldn’t be surprised. Maybe it’s because half of Rome is out of town on their annual August holiday, but there is less buzz about this team than at any time in my memory.

“I know what you mean,” said Agnew, who lives just outside Rome in Trevignano Romano. “In other years there was a bigger buzz that we could do something this year and get back to the heights of competitive days. I don’t get that feeling at the moment.”

I agree with him on what has made so many turn their backs on this team.

“Two things obviously have spoiled the atmosphere at Roma,” he said. “Totti’s press conference in May in which he basically, this great Roma idol, shat on them. He just essentially accused the management of being both incompetent and disloyal and not having made it clear to him what they wanted him to do and then when he did give advice paying no attention to it, indicating with these guys in charge of the club there was going to be problems up ahead. The fans listen to this closely. Then he said, ‘I’m leaving the club’ which is a bigger statement than all of it.

Daniele De Rossi joined Boca Juniors after 19 years with his hometown Roma. Il Post photo


“Then you have the other iconic figure, De Rossi, who wants to stay. If I was the club director, I’d have kept him on for at least another season because of what he could offer in terms of experience and understanding of the entire environment.”

My sportswriting experience has jaded me too much to hope for a title run. I’ll settle for a top four finish. Inter Milan, under new coach Antonio Conte, looks like it has closed the gap on Juventus. I want to see how the pressure to not only win a record ninth-straight title but not lose in the Champions League will affect new Juve coach Maurizio Sarri, whose Europa League title last season wasn’t enough for Chelsea fans to appreciate.

Napoli has established itself as a consistent top three and Manolas strengthens its defense, Atalanta is Italy’s new rising star and Milan still has the country’s best goalkeeper in 20-year-old Gianluigi Donnarumma.

Meanwhile, Lazio still sucks.

A crowd of only about 30,000 is expected Sunday. AS Roma photo


(Actually, it doesn’t. I just like my Laziali friends to read that.)

At least now I don’t need to call my sister, an Oregon State grad, and ask how to brace myself for soul-crushing public humiliation every weekend. I know exactly what I’ll say to the boys in Romagnoli Sunday morning in preparation for a new season with surprising promise.

“FORZA ROMA!”

A trip to Rome’s Olympic Stadium is worth the hassle when Roma wins

Making my season debut at Olympic Stadium, a 2-1 Champions League win for Roma  over Porto.

Making my season debut at Olympic Stadium, a 2-1 Champions League win for Roma over Porto.


Did you know a comb could be a weapon?

And it’s not even a big comb, one of those knife-length jobs you slip in your back pocket, the kind James Bond may have used to cut a Russian spy’s throat. It’s a little round collapsible comb that pops out when you lift the lid and push up from underneath. For years I carried it in my left front pocket, not knowing I had a concealed weapon in my possession.

In Rome’s Olympic Stadium, it is.

Security guards confiscated it Tuesday night when I went through the gate. I asked the female guard what possible harm could I do with this, thinking maybe her tip would be handy if I ever meet a Trump supporter. She made a throwing motion as if hurling a fastball, showing pretty good velocity.

So they don’t want me throwing it on the field or at opposing fans. They were searching everybody everywhere. Pockets. Purses. Backpacks. Limbs. I thought I saw a proctologist on call nearby.

Welcome to the soccer game experience, Italian style.

I’ve seen nearly every AS Roma game this season but this was my first trip to see one live. I eschewed my normal mid-field press tribune seat for a 50-euro ticket with my fellow American expat/Romanista, Loren, an English teacher from Long Island who left Rome last June for Zurich. Two things she misses about Rome are the food and football.

We tried to get a group together but it wasn’t easy. Some begged out because it was a work night and a 9 p.m. start; others didn’t want to hassle with going to the stadium.

And it is a hassle. Even getting there is a problem. Rome is the only capital I know in Europe that does not have a train going to its stadium. One must rely on Europe’s worst public transportation system, Atac, only slightly more reliable than hitchhiking and not much safer. Unlike Rome’s buses, at least cars driven by psycho loners with butcher knives don’t inexplicably burst into flames. If you drive, you must park at least a kilometer away per the absurd security precautions. You never know when a suicide bomber frustrated with Roma’s coaching staff runs his explosives-laden Fiat into a panino stand.

Once at the stadium, the security is something akin to that at a North Korean nuclear facility. You show your ticket plus a photo ID to get through the first gate. The ticket MUST have your name on it to foil scalpers. I’ve seen some in Italy hover outside gates selling discount tickets to unwitting, casual tourists who are then denied entry but learn their first Italian word: ladro (thief).

Then you walk 50 meters and go through an electronic turnstile where you press the ticket’s barcode against a machine’s blinding light, unlocking the gate you walk through. Greeting you is a squadron of security guards who pat you down, feel your pockets and view grooming products as hand grenades.

At the same time you’re arguing the relative merits of combs, a monitor is photographing your face to match up in case a camera inside the stadium catches you hurling a javelin at the opposing goalie.

Still, coming to an AS Roma game as a fan is an experience I can’t get at my midfield seat with the video monitor in front of me and access to press room pizza. It’s definitely more exhilarating than sitting in the cramped upper room of my soccer pub with the other Romanisti eating fish ‘n chips and breaking down Brexit.

More than 51,000 fans packed the stadium, including my section on the north end.

More than 51,000 fans packed the stadium, including my section on the north end.


And Tuesday night was special: AS Roma-Porto, the Champions League knockout stage. It’s the perfect time to write an update on my favorite sports team. It’s the one liferaft of fandom I’ve grasped after 40 years as a crusty (“WHERE ARE THE STATS???!!!”), emotionally bankrupt (“When’s last call?”), cynical (see above graphs) sportswriter.

It has taken a while this season to hop aboard. The offseason was painful. Ramon Rodriguez Verdejo, the Spanish sporting director known as “Monchi” brought over from Sevilla two years ago after directing it to 11 trophies, headed a purge of Roma’s guts. Gone went Alisson Becker, 25, in the discussion as the world’s best goalkeeper, to Liverpool. Midfielder Radja Nainggolan, 30, the heavily tattooed fan favorite and on-field enforcer, rejoined former Roma coach Luciano Spalletti at Inter Milan. Midfielder Kevin Strootman, 28, a major locker room leader, rejoined Rudy Garcia, another ex-Roma coach, in Marseille. In Alisson (a goalkeeper-record 62.5 million euros), Nainggolan (38 million) and Strootman (25 million) the club got 130.5 million euros in transfer fees.

With that they went out and bought a bunch of kids. Arriving from Dutch power Ajax came Justin Kluivert, 19, son of the former Dutch international Patrick Kluivert, for 17.25 million. Patrik Schick, a 22-year-old striker from Czech Republic, came from Sampdoria for 9 million and attacking midfielder Nicolo Zaniolo, 18, came aboard from Inter for only 4.5 million. The biggest acquisitions were Sevilla midfielder Steven Nzonzi, 29, fresh off helping France to the World Cup title, for 26.56 million; Paris-Saint Germain midfielder Javier Pastore, 29, for 24.7 million; and goalkeeper Robin Olsen, 28, from FC Copenhagen and who blanked Italy twice to send Sweden to the World Cup, for 8.5 million.

Financially they came out ahead but how much farther ahead on the field would they get banking on the future? And who is this Zaniolo kid? If he looked any younger his mom would hand him Orange Slices after games.

Juventus, the 500-pound carnivore and seven-time Serie A defending champion, added world icon Cristiano Ronaldo and was basically handed the trophy before the first whistle blew in August.

Roma started with 1 win, 2 ties and 2 losses and later lost to 14th-place SPAL at home, 2-0. Olsen was a serviceable replacement for Becker but the defense was terrible and Dzeko, who led Roma last year with 24 goals, was hurt and ineffective. The young kids were still getting comfortable. With veteran captain Daniele De Rossi out with a knee injury, the leadership was nil. In mid-December, Roma stood at 5-6-4 and Roma’s famously impatient and vicious fans had had enough.

On Dec. 16, before a home game against Genoa, the Roma Ultras organized a protest. Thousands didn’t enter until 11 minutes had passed in the game. Those already in the stands turned their backs on the field during player introductions and whistled loudly at the announcement of every player’s name but De Rossi and Zaniolo.

Roma won three of its next four, losing only at Juventus 1-0, to enter the winter break 8-6-5 but it hit rock bottom when it returned. On Jan. 27, it blew a 3-0 lead at Atalanta and tied 3-3 then three days later at Fiorentina got filleted in 7-1 in the Italian Cup, the national tournament not held in high regard except when it’s an excuse to fire the coach.

Eusebio Di Francesco, who arrived last season from Sassuolo and led Roma to the Champions League semifinals and third place in Serie A, couldn’t have been on a hotter seat if the broiler was set on nuclear. James Pallotta, the embattled American owner, said he’d leave the decision to Monchi who steadfastly supported Di Francesco.

Di Francesco, a midfielder on Roma’s last Serie A championship team in 2000-01, has spent all season one step ahead of the executioner’s axe. Roma looked solid in a 1-1 tie against Milan then Dzeko, who awoke from his Serie A coma to score two goals at Atalanta, scored another in a 3-0 win at Chievo. The fact that Chievo is in last place was lost on the 51,000 fans who nearly sold out Olympic Stadium Tuesday hoping Roma could continue its Champions League magic.

Roma finished second behind Real Madrid in the Champions League group stage in which Dzeko had five goals in six games, giving him 15 in the competition for Roma all time, only two behind leader Francesco Totti, Roma’s living god. Roma is rising in Serie A as well, standing 10-8-5 in a three-way tie for fifth place, one point behind Milan for the fourth and final Champions League spot for next season.

Loren and I, being Americans, had to start our evening with a beer. Drinking in Olympic Stadium is an odd experience for an American. There’s never a line, especially weird since the 4-euro price is about half the price of beer in your average American stadium. Romans drink beer like Brits drink tea: slowly and sparingly. I’ve seen so few fans drink beer in the stadium I thought it wasn’t even sold, not because they want to curb rowdiness but because it flat out wouldn’t sell. Olympic Stadium is as sober as St. Peter’s.

We took our seat in the fourth row on one corner of the north end. It’s about as close to the field as you’ll get but with the eight-lane track still left from the 1960 Olympics, the distance from the end lines doesn’t make up for the low vantage point. However, we did get good views of the 3,500 Porto fans who came from Portugal to jam pack one section of the north end, cordoned off from the Roma fans by a tall Plexiglas fence, an empty section and an army of security guards, lined up like sentries on every step.

At 8:10 p.m., a good 50 minutes before the game, the Porto fans lit a fuse under a Rome fan base that only needs a cold shoulder to eat Plexiglas. They started hurling objects that looked like food and fluids over the Plexiglas into the Roma section. Roma fans responded with outstretched arms, the Roman hand gesture for “I mortacci tua” (May your entire family die.) Porto fans then waved the red cape by holding up a “FORZA LAZIO” banner and a jersey of Paolo Di Canio, the former Lazio player known for his fascism.

The Ultras in Curva Sud were in full force.

The Ultras in Curva Sud were in full force.


Not to be outdone, some Ultras in Curva Sud held up a banner reading “BASTARDO KOLAROV,” a biting cut to Aleksandar Kolarov, the veteran Serbian defender who has become the fans’ paddling boy for Roma’s defensive deficiencies. The banner was quickly removed.

Olsen was still nursing a calf injury and Roma started at goalkeeper Antonio Mirante, a 35-year-old journeyman making the biggest start of his career but I’d seen him make the second best save all season at Chievo and wasn’t worried.

However, Porto is no Chievo. It is the New York Yankees of Portuguese soccer — except Porto is still winning. It has won 28 Primeira Liga titles, second only to Benfica’s 36, but 10 of the last 16, including last year’s. It was in first place when it took the field on a clear 40-degree night Tuesday with clear memories of eliminating Roma two years ago.

The first half wouldn’t win over my old farm boy sports editor who called soccer “kickball.” Through 23 minutes, no team had a shot on goal. I looked at this glass as half filled and chalked up the 0-0 halftime score to a great defensive game, one I’d settle for after watching the bludgeoning at Fiorentina from an angry pub.

But Roma started pressing the action in the second half with Stephen El-Shaarawy skying an open shot in the 55th minute and Rome native Alessandro Florenzi hitting a bullet saved by craggie goalkeeper Iker Castillas, who led Spain to the 2010 World Cup title.

Finally, in the 70th minute, Dzeko outraced all of Portugal down the field and fed a perfect ball to a charging Zaniolo who slotted in the corner of the net for a 1-0 lead. Six minutes later, Zaniolo did it again, taking a Dzeko shot that ricocheted off the pole into the corner to make it 2-0.

Heroes Edwin Dzeko and Nicolo Zaniolo made the cover the next day under the headline "A FAIRY TALE."

Heroes Edwin Dzeko and Nicolo Zaniolo made the cover the next day under the headline “A FAIRY TALE.”


Yes, Roma finally has a young star and Zaniolo is finally a bigger star than his mom whose selfies have gone viral. Yes, Francesca Costa’s shots of herself on the beach in bikinis and posing in miniskirts in front of the mirror is the mother of Roma’s baby-faced sniper. From whence came this 19-year-old who has five goals in 22 games and made his Roma debut at — gulp! — Real Madrid in the Champions League Sept. 19.

Born in the Tuscany beach town of Massa, the son of a former Serie B and C player came up through Fiorentina’s youth system but was released in 2016. He hooked on with Serie B Virtus Entella two years ago and in July 2017 signed with Inter where he became its developmental team’s top scorer with 13 goals. Last summer, Inter shipped him and Davide Santon to Roma for Nainggolan, one of Monchi’s many moves that made many of the more polite fans go, “Che CAZZO! (What the fuck?)”

Zaniolo was hailed long after a Porto goal in the 76th minute made it a 2-1 final. The goal made Roma’s return leg in Portugal March 6 a little more frightening (teams advance on accumulative score with away goals serving as the first tie-breaker) but considering our season, the 2-1 victory seemed like a stay of execution.

The crowd was remarkably subdued at the final whistle. The rollicking “Grazie Roma” sung by fans arm in arm didn’t have the usual verve. In an up and down year, polite team songs sometimes take a back seat to more symbolic post-game looks like the one right near me.

A young man in a gray hoodie facing the Porto section with two middle fingers waving in the air.